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Paralyzed driver aims for Indy breakthrough

May. 23, 2014 - 04:38PM   |  
Semi-Autonomous Motorcar project
Semi-Autonomous Motorcar project: Thanks to engineers at defense contractor Ball Aerospace, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Arrow Electronics, Falci Adaptive Motorsports and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Sam Schmidt raced this week.
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Former race car driver Sam Schmidt is a quadriplegic who had not driven in 14 years before he took to the track last Sunday in this modified Corvette C17 Stingray. (Ball Aerospace)

When former race car driver Sam Schmidt hits the asphalt this weekend in a demo run at the Indianapolis 500, he’ll provide hope to thousands of Americans, including many veterans, who can’t drive because of physical limitations.

Schmidt is a quadriplegic. And until this week, he had not driven in 14 years — since he broke his neck during an Indy test run in Orlando, Florida, in 2000.

But thanks to some enterprising engineers at defense contractor Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., the Air Force Research Laboratory, Arrow Electronics, Falci Adaptive Motorsports and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, he took to the world-famous track last Sunday — Pole Day — behind the wheel of a modified Corvette C17 Stingray, which he controls by moving his head.

“I was put on a motorcycle at age 5, and it’s something I’ve been doing all my life ... get in and go fast,” Schmidt said during an interview prior to his test runs this week.

Schmidt’s car, part of the Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (SAM) project, could be the key to helping people with disabilities gain greater mobility and independence. The car, according to Ball Aerospace senior business area manager Timothy Choate, is equipped with an infrared camera system that picks up instruction from sensors on the driver’s hat.

A computer system collects the signals and translates them to the car to control steering and acceleration.

“It’s the same technology Hollywood uses to capture movement for animation,” Choate said.

The driver uses a bite sensor to slow down and brake — a system that also feeds into the car’s computer system.

A guidance system keeps the car at least 5 feet from the edge of the track, and a safety system ensures that the commands read by the computer system are real and defined within the vehicle’s limits.

Developers came up with the idea last August, and by December, car and simulator were ready to go.

Schmidt took his first simulator drive in February. According to Choate, who was at Schmidt’s side, the ride came easily to a man who was a rising star on the Indy circuit before his crash.

“He knew exactly what he wanted to do. He came out of the pit, accelerated to max speed of 106 [mph] and tucked the car 2 inches from the wall,” Choate said.

The technology has the potential to revolutionize cars and other adaptive hardware for the disabled, but it has military and medical applications as well, according to the researchers.

The Air Force has been collecting sensor data from both the driver and passenger to further research on operational stress, and the defense contractors involved see potential applications for the mechanisms that control unmanned aerial vehicles, spacecraft and robots.

For those who have had to rely on others to provide transportation, however, the technology has the potential to change their lives.

According to Choate, the next step to make this technology available commercially would be to “ruggedize” it for average cars and add sensors to make any adapted vehicle roadway friendly, using the same equipment that now guides cars to parallel park without human input or brake in an emergency.

In addition to his appearance on the Indianapolis track, Schmidt also is hoping to be a winner: his company, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, has three cars entered in the 500.

But without a doubt, the highlight of pre-race week was those four laps in a sports car, on his own.

“There has been so much effort put into this project. It’s gone by faster than I thought it would. There’s been a lot of advancement, a lot of evolution. ... It amazes me, what you can put your mind to in a short of amount of time if you have the right people,” Schmidt said.

To learn more about the SAM project, check out Choate’s interview with Vago Muradian on Defense News, which will air in the Washington, D.C., area on ABC 7 at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 24, and will be posted on defensenews.com on Sunday mid-day.

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